Being a “people pleaser” often looks like this: you’re nauseous thinking about asking someone their opinion or permission. Your palms are sweaty and your stomach is knotted thinking your head might get torn off. It doesn’t happen, of course. It’s the idea of angering someone that causes your internal terror.
If you’re a people pleaser, being with someone who is angry or upset is frightening and intimidating — even more so if you’re the one who upset them. Of course, upsetting others is a natural part of life.
We can gain wisdom from how authors Milan and Kay Yerkovich help people pleasers overcome anxiety in their book, How We Love. The Yerkovichs use the term “imprinting” to describe the lessons we’re taught during childhood regarding comfort, listening, and resolving problems with other people. The examples our parents set for us determine how we will approach these social skills throughout life.
“I Can’t Stand it When People are Angry With Me”
Having a “pleaser imprint” is the result of a childhood with an overprotective or overly critical parent. When the parent is overprotective, the child learns that many things cause anxiety or fear. They then associate these triggers with negative emotions. Because this child is rescued by her overprotective parent, the child never learns how to deal independently with negative feelings.
If, instead, the parent is overly critical, the child becomes a pleaser to avoid criticism or anger. Milan and Kay Yerkovich describe the pleaser as those who become “good boys” and “good girls” to push away anxiety or hurt. They push off their own feelings, never learning to manage their emotions, because they have become overly concerned with shepherding the feelings of the parent.
The pleaser imprint can also be the result of an undiagnosed learning disability. When a child is plagued by anxiety because of a school setting, they feel they can’t keep up with their peers and fear that they will be bullied or taunted. These children are afraid of any attention in a school setting.
“Being away from the house can be stressful for these kids. That’s because they are unable to monitor the moods and atmosphere of the home environment when they are gone. Then returning home requires an assessment of the prevailing mood so these young pleasers can adjust their behavior accordingly.” When these children grow up and marry, they transfer this constant emotional monitoring to their spouse. Most don’t even realize they do it.
“I’m Stressed, Not Anxious”
If you struggle to turn off your “fight or flight” response, you’re probably a people pleaser. What a pleaser feels as an undercurrent of stress may actually be anxiety. Pleasers collect tension like a sponge, constantly monitoring the emotional temperature of those around them. To lessen this inner turmoil, pleasers do whatever it takes to help diffuse a situation so they can stay calm. As adults, these people often avoid painful or unfamiliar situations because they weren’t taught how to deal with these types of circumstances. Because their parents may have contributed to the fear, as children they learned to monitor anger signs and to fix negative emotions in the parent. Though a pleaser can look selfless in his or her giving gestures, these are often simply ways to monitor their partner’s emotional temperature.
As an example, a wife who is a people pleaser may make a practice of sitting down after dinner with her husband and bringing him a cup of coffee. It may look like she’s noticing his likes and doing something loving by serving him each night. But, she’s internalized her gift of coffee and what it says about her. If he takes the coffee, he’s happy with her. If he doesn’t want coffee, she feels the sting of rejection and begins to mentally question why he might be angry. She has associated his response about the coffee with how he feels about her, when really he just made a frivolous comment about his nightly cup of joe. Because pleasers are unprepared to handle rejection, small “no’s” carry a heavy weight.
Additionally, the people pleaser can say “yes” too much. It takes a lot of work for pleasers to create healthy boundaries. Because a “no” could mean disappointment and anger, pleasers do things they might not want to do simply to avoid confrontation. As a result, they tend to take on too much.
This also relates to a common characteristic of pleasers: they have a hard time making decisions due to their strong insecurity. They’re afraid that they might anger someone or be rejected, so they struggle with taking charge or solving problems. They haven’t yet learned to grow in self-confidence or independence. Since this is the case, they often leave larger issues like finances and child-rearing decisions to their spouse.
The Bible’s Take On People PleasingThe Bible tells us we should not be afraid. Of course, life is hard and intimidating and sometimes we are filled with doubt. This doesn’t mean that we ought to live in fear or give up the power we have to make decisions until the problem or difficulty passes. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7 NKJV). Caution is a God-given gift so we don’t run into danger. But fear should not keep you from following God’s path for your life. Think of Esther, Paul, Ruth, and David. All of these people in the Bible faced frightening circumstances and they were likely afraid. But they never used fear as an excuse to not follow God. It is not that we need to be heroes, but rather that we can all make space to grow courage in our hearts.
Perhaps even more poignant is Galatians 1:10, when Paul asks, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” This can be a convicting passage, and one we should prayerfully consider if we identify with the “people pleaser” title.
People Pleasers Can Grow through Christian Couples Counseling
It can be challenging to grow and mature from the imprints of our childhood. They’re like a map and compass that have shaped our life’s interactions. If you’re wiling to grow in your bravery, you can learn to not let fear rule your interactions with others. A professional Christian counselor can help you bring together spiritual principles and proven therapeutic methods to help you grow and develop positive ways of interacting with others.
If you’re married, it’s always beneficial to seek counseling together, especially in light of this discussion on imprints. A counselor can help you work through your respective imprints, their effects on your marriage, and how you can improve your marriage and lives.
“How We Love,” Milan and Kay Yerkovich
“Surprise,” courtesy of pixabay.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License;
“Stay a While,” courtesy of picjumbo.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License;
“For Me?” courtesy of iPrice Group, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License